Spring Preview - Running Backs

Steve Sarkisian and Chris Petersen are known for their high-flying, big production offenses, but the former college quarterbacks are more basic than you might be led to believe. They love to start their attacks by running the ball; it's the foundation for everything that happens on offense.

To that end, expect Petersen, the first year Washington Head Coach, to run the ball as much as Sarkisian did when he was at UW.

Petersen's offensive philosophy starts with putting the quarterback in the best chance to be successful, and that starts with running the ball. It might seem a bit ironic coming from a pass-happy conference like the Mountain West, but outside of 2008, Petersen had a 1,000-yard rusher every year year he was head coach at BSU.

But there's one big stumbling block as Petersen and Running Backs coach Keith Bhonapha assemble their troops for their first practices of spring football - no Bishop Sankey and his 1931 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns.
24 Jesse Callier - 5-10, 207 Sr. Downey, Calif. (Warren) - Callier came back successfully from a knee tear in 2012 to run for 213 yards and score three touchdowns for UW in 2013, playing in all 13 games. Callier can play inside or outside the tackles, and has always been good out of the backfield catching the ball
32 Deontae Cooper - 6-0, 201 Sr. Perris, Calif. (Citrus Hill) - Another running back that was able to overcome a knee injury in 2012, Cooper's return to the field was even more emphatic considering he was actually recovering from three knee surgeries. Cooper ran for 270 yards and three scores for the Huskies last season. Despite losing his trademark open-field burst, Cooper is still very much a viable running threat and should continue to get better and better the more he runs the ball and trusts that he's physically back to as close to 100 percent as he's going to get.
12 Dwayne Washington - 6-1, 220 So. Lakewood, Calif. (Gahr) - The second-leading rusher on UW's roster in 2013, Washington ran for 333 yards and four scores while averaging over 7 yards a carry. Washington is the Huskies' breakout threat every time he touches the ball. A converted receiver, Washington still has plenty of basics to master before fully unleashing his talent, but we've seen enough glimpses to know that he's capable of special things.
31 Ryan McDaniel - 6-0, 204 So. Torrance, Calif. (North) - He's measured at 204 pounds on gohuskies.com, but McDaniel is definitely bigger than that. He only ran for 47 yards in 2013 on 10 carries, but that's because there were four legitimate tailback options in front of him. McDaniel has always been one of the 'bigger' back options for short-yardage and goal-line situations, but could also play as a single back with the ability to run inside or out.
22 Lavon Coleman - 6-0, 209 RFr. Lompoc, Calif. (Lompoc) - Redshirted in 2013, but before they left the UW offensive staff under Steve Sarkisian raved about Coleman's improvement since the beginning of fall and how, by the end of the season he had an 'NFL-ready' body. The future definitely looks bright for Coleman, who was a very productive runner at Lompoc, the alma mater of UW great Napoleon Kaufman.
Nick Zelle - 5-11, 175 RFr. walk-on Seattle, Wash. (Roosevelt)

Departing Players: 1 (Bishop Sankey)

Incoming This Fall: 1 (Jomon Dotson)

Where the position stands: Obviously losing a record-setting running back like Bishop Sankey is always a huge blow, but Petersen is going to have some nice options. With Callier and Cooper at least a year-and-a-half removed from their knee injuries - and knock on wood no setbacks - they should be as close to 100 percent as they've ever been. Add to that a rugged and dynamic runner in Dwayne Washington, UW has three experienced ball-carriers to share the wealth. To mix metaphors for a second, Washington is the home-run threat of the group, while Callier and Cooper provide steady bats.

The competition: The competition for the starting spot here should be fierce, just based on numbers alone. With everyone sans Sankey back and healthy, there's going to be some real challenges put upon Bhonapha to find the needed carries to make sure every player here has been given a fair shot. The reality is there are four legitimate challengers to take Sankey's spot - Callier, Cooper, Washington, and Coleman. Not sure where McDaniel fits in numbers-wise; obviously we'll see when spring ball commences March 4.

Who has the edge?: Callier and Cooper are the experienced hands here, and it's kind of hard to separate the two. They aren't necessarily similar runners; Callier is probably the bigger dual threat in terms of being dangerous running and catching, but Cooper broke out against Oregon State with 166 yards and two touchdowns - so there's no question he still has what it takes to be an effective every-down back.

But if Washington can eliminate the fumbling issues that plagued him early in the 2013 season and arguably curtailed a lot of his backup carries, there's no question he contains the explosiveness and size to be a threat to go every time he touches the football. That's an intoxicating mix for Petersen and Bhonapha to consider, and I think Washington is going to get every opportunity to show himself as the Huskies' number-one back coming out of spring.

Make no mistake; the old hands are going to give Washington a serious run for his money. It won't be an easy job to win by any measure.

Who should step up?: The x-factor is obviously going to be Lavon Coleman. The redshirt frosh was earning big praise from the old staff for his work in practices and he might be the one guy that could emerge on top with Petersen's clean slate. And it's hard to understate just how that fresh beginning may help or hurt certain guys. Logically you'd have to think the younger players would have an easier time adjusting to new surroundings compared to the older players and their routines.

There's one thing Petersen and new Running Backs Coach Keith Bhonapha are not going to do - come into this position battle with preconceived notions. That could really benefit Coleman, who now comes into spring on equal footing.

And we can't forget McDaniel, despite him being on paper the odd man out and also coming back from a knee injury. He could definitely be a factor, just because it's hard to know exactly where he is right now given how little he played in 2013.

In Waiting: Washington signed one running back for the 2014 class, Jomon Dotson. With so many bigger backs, Petersen opted for speed with Dotson, and he got it. You can view his senior film HERE. On film he looks like a slightly smaller Cooper, a runner nearly as prolific as Cooper too as Dotson ran for nearly 5,000 yards in his career, as well as scored 60 touchdowns. It was important for Petersen, like he did with K.J. Carta-Samuels at quarterback, to continue to recruit one prospect at the running back position to keep the numbers in balance, as well as bring in a talented option that could fit in nicely with what the Huskies already bring back to the position in the fall.

In Summary: It's funny to say that the running back position group is in good hands after losing a 2,000-yard rusher and All-American, but Washington has plenty of talent backing Bishop Sankey up and Sarkisian left the cupboard stocked at running back for years to come. And as it will be with the quarterbacks, the running backs have their players with playing time, but they also have very talented players waiting in the wings to show the new UW staff they have what it takes to play as well. The experienced guys should have the momentum heading into spring, but don't discount the young kids; they may really benefit from new coaching blood and turn this spring competition on its head.

Either way, Petersen has loads of ways he could go with the running backs, and he'll need them all in the fall to help lay the foundation for his offense.

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